Reading Marcus Aurelius

What I like about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations is their immediacy. My well-thumbed Gregory Hays translation serves a spiritual function. If perplexed I can open a page, and usually find a suitable meditation to contemplate, to think through a particular problem. If nothing else, Marcus (I’ve known the emperor-philosopher long enough that we are on first name terms) is good company when I’m too tired to concentrate on a new book.

When I allow my copy to fall open it is to the following list of eight kephalaia, or points, which serve as a broad announcement of all Marcus’ themes, and function as a reminder of the essential core of Stoicism:

To be angry at something means you’ve forgotten:

  1. That everything that happens is natural.
  2. That the responsibility is theirs, not yours.
  3. And further … that whatever happens has always happened, and always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. Just like this.
  4. What links one human being to all humans: not blood, or birth, but mind [intellect].

And …

  1. That an individual’s mind is God and of God.
  2. That nothing belongs to anyone. Children, body, life itself-all of them come from that same source.
  3. That it’s all how you choose to see things.
  4. That the present is all we have to live in. Or to lose.

In his book on Aurelius, Pierre Hadot connects these to the fundamental dogmas of Stoicism:

From the absolute primary principle according to which the only good is moral good and the only evil is moral evil, it follows that neither pleasure nor pain are evils; that the only thing shameful is moral evil; that faults committed against us cannot touch us; that he who commits a fault hurts only himself; and that the fault cannot be found elsewhere than within oneself. It further follows that I can suffer no harm from the actions of anyone else.